Ford Racing enters the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season needing only one victory to reach 600. Over the next two weeks, leading up to the Daytona 500, Ford Racing will present a recap of the milestone wins and other tidbits that have helped shape the manufacturer’s history in the sport. This week, Ford Racing looks at the bizarre and ironic nature of Morgan Shepherd’s win that gave Ford 400 series victories.
The 1993 NASCAR season was off to a flying start as three different drivers had made their way to victory lane in the first three weeks. Dale Jarrett won the season-opening Daytona 500 while Rusty Wallace and Davey Allison came away with checkered flags at Rockingham and Richmond, respectively.
Little did anyone know that by the time the series got to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the fourth race of the season, the real winner would be Mother Nature.
The Motorcraft Quality Parts 500 was scheduled to take place on Sunday, March 14, 1993, but a blizzard that would eventually be called the ‘Storm of the Century’ pounded the Atlanta area with 6-8 inches of snow making racing impossible.
“That’s the race that was snowed out and all of us got stuck down there,” recalled Len Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford. “We all stayed in our hotels for another two days before we could get home, and then we came back later that week and ran the race on a Saturday.”
As an estimated 82,000 fans came to the track, they were greeted by souvenir rigs that sported freshly produced t-shirts proclaiming, “I Survived the Atlanta Blizzard 500.” They got in their seats and watched Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt lead the field to the green flag.
But it was Mark Martin who laid claim to being the dominant car as he drove his No. 6 Valvoline Ford to the front. He led 140 of the first 225 laps, but that’s when his engine blew up and ended his day. That left a handful of challengers, including Morgan Shepherd, who survived the blizzard by driving home in his Ford rental car and returning a couple of days later.
“All they talked about was how fast Mark was, but our pit stops were slow. We really had the fastest car after about the halfway point, but it was like nobody knew we were that fast because I was coming from so far back,” recalled Shepherd. “When Mark blew up I was running second at the time, but I was closing in.”
Just when it looked like Shepherd was in position to take command, he had a tire go down coming off turn four and that forced him back to pit road ahead of schedule.
“We had to pit eight laps too soon,” said Shepherd. “After I took off, Eddie got on the radio and said, ‘Morgan, if there’s any way you can save gas, we need to stretch it eight laps.’ Our car was so fast that I drafted off other cars and really didn’t use much throttle. A lot of people don’t know this, but we went 110 miles, drove it into the winner’s circle, and then drove it down to the gas pumps and still didn’t run out of gas. I don’t know that anybody had ever gone 110 miles at Atlanta before, but we did.”
Another thing many people didn’t know at the time was that the Wood Brothers were getting some helpful advice from none other than the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
“As fate would have it, Alan Kulwicki had wrecked out of the race and he was watching the race from out pits. He was standing up on a little welding box and he started talking to us about when we were planning on stopping,” said Len Wood. “We told we were planning on not stopping and he said, ‘Well, you can’t make it.’ So a little bit later he came running over in almost a panic and said, ‘Hey, if you can make it, you need to start backing him off right now.’ So we started backing Morgan off a little bit earlier than we anticipated and we ended up making it on fuel.”
Shepherd, who was 51 years old at the time, took the lead with 12 laps to go and cruised across the finish line to win the fourth and final race of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career and it was by a whopping margin of 23.50 seconds. Ironically, three of Shepherd’s wins came at AMS.
“There are some things in life that you just can’t explain and this falls into that category,” said Shepherd. “Atlanta wasn’t my favorite race track. Darlington was my favorite race track and while I always ran good there, I never won. Most people would think I’d say Atlanta because I had three wins, but it just always seemed to work out that our car was very fast. I won there three times with three totally different setups.
“It was just an honor driving for the Wood Brothers. I’ve driven for several top teams and they were like real family. They treated everybody that way,” continued Shepherd. “When people came to their shop, the atmosphere and the way they treated you was different from any other race team. When they took you in, if they liked you, you were family. That’s the way it was and that’s the way it still is because they still treat me like family to this day.”
Sadly, Kulwicki’s gas-mileage assist was quickly forgotten because just a couple of weeks later he was killed in an accident when the plane he was traveling in crashed en route to Tri-Cities Regional Airport near Bristol Motor Speedway.
“He was there helping us one week in Atlanta, and then he had his plane accident on April 1,” said Len Wood, who said the team has a picture of Kulwicki standing on that welding box in his Hooters jacket currently hanging in the team’s racing museum in Stuart, Va.
FORD FUN FACT
The Wood Brothers have 97 all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins with 16 different drivers. David Pearson ranks first on the team list with 43 wins followed by Cale Yarborough, 13; Neil Bonnett, 9; Marvin Panch, 8; A.J. Foyt, 5; Glen Wood and Dan Gurney, 4; Speedy Thompson and Kyle Petty, 2; Donnie Allison, Curtis Turner, Tiny Lund, Buddy Baker, Dale Jarrett, Morgan Shepherd and Elliott Sadler, 1.
Courtesy of Ford Racing